Soprano Anna Moffo was one of the best-loved performers at New York's Metropolitan Opera in the 1960s. In the words of Elizabeth Forbes of London's Independent newspaper, Moffo "was the perfect interpreter of those innumerable operatic heroines who are dying of consumption [tuberculosis] or some other disease, or just from unrequited love." She had both the warm, lyrical voice and the good looks to handle roles like that of the doomed high-class prostitute Violetta in Giuseppe Verdi's La traviata, a part she performed some 900 times. Trained partly in Italy, she was also popular in that country, and her cadre of hardcore opera-loving admirers remains an unusually devoted one.
Born in Wayne, Pennsylvania, outside of Philadelphia, on June 27, 1932, Moffo was the daughter of a shoemaker. Her charisma showed itself while she was still a student at Radnor High School, where she played field hockey and basketball. She boasted a strong hook shot in the latter sport. After graduating, Moffo thought about moving to the West Coast and trying to become an actress; she also weighed her parents' desire that she become a nun. A scholarship from Philadelphia's top-flight Curtis Institute of Music helped her make up her mind; she studied there with Eufemia Giannini-Gregory and made rapid progress, winning the Philadelphia Orchestra's Young Artists Auditions in 1954. Earning a Fulbright fellowship for further study, she headed for Italy later that year. Her teachers at Rome's Accademia di Santa Cecilia were Luigi Ricci and Mercedes Llopart.
It didn't take Moffo long to make an impression on Italy's notoriously demanding operatic audiences. She made her debut in 1955 at the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, singing the role of Norina in Gaetano Donizetti's Don Pasquale. Soon she was spotted by Italian recording and broadcast producer Mario Lanfranchi, who cast her as the tragic geisha Cio-Cio-San in a television production of Giacomo Puccini's Madama Butterfly. Almost overnight, Moffo was an opera star. Over the next several years she sang at most of Italy's leading theaters, and she returned to the United States in 1957 to make her debut at the Lyric Opera in Chicago as the tuberculosis-stricken seamstress Mimi in Puccini's La bohème. That role, unrivaled in opera in terms of sheer generation of audience weeping, became another of Moffo's specialties. She and Lanfranchi married that year.
Moffo made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1959, singing the role of Violetta. Initial reviews were mixed, but Moffo's performance was the beginning of a love affair with American opera audiences. She appeared with the Met more than 200 times over the next 15 years. Eighty of those appearances were as Violetta, which Forbes called "in many ways … her finest role. Most singers who tackle Verdi's frail heroine excel either in the coloratura of the first act, or in the lyrical music of the second and third. Moffo, who could let off vocal fireworks with the greatest ease, and whose lyrical phrasing was a constant delight, excelled in both. The complete authenticity of her appearance naturally added a great deal of pathos to her interpretation." The comment was typical of critical evaluations of Moffo's voice, which cut across the conventional vocal categories of lyric, dramatic, and coloratura (ornate and highly virtuosic). Her success wasn't limited to Verdi and Puccini, for she quickly added other roles to her repertoire, singing in French as well as Italian. A major highlight of her career was her performance in the title role of a 1965 production of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor.
Nor were her triumphs limited to the American stage. Moffo sang at top European opera houses through the 1960s and retained her hold on Italian audiences. From 1960 to 1973 she hosted The Anna Moffo Show, an Italian television program devoted to opera, and she was once voted one of the ten most beautiful women in Italy. Moffo also appeared in several non-operatic films, launching her career with the all-star Napoleonic epic Austerlitz in 1960 and starring opposite actor Ugo Tognazzi in the comedy Menage all'italiana (Menage Italian-Style) in 1965. One film, the Italian-language Una storia d'amore (A Love Story) in 1969, caused a scandal because of a scene featuring what appeared to be a totally nude Moffo. She later denied that she had actually stripped for the cameras.
This hectic schedule, which involved a great deal of transatlantic commuting, took its toll on Moffo's voice. Met general manager Rudolf Bing considered stopping a performance of Lucia di Lammermoor in 1969 because he thought Moffo's singing was not up to par. Emotionally, Moffo was hitting bottom. "I was working too hard and traveling too much," she was quoted as saying by Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times. "Psychologically, I was miserable, always away, always alone." In 1972 Moffo's marriage to Lanfranchi dissolved. Two years later she suffered what has several times been described as a vocal crisis and withdrew temporarily from performing and recording.
In 1974 Moffo married RCA label executive Robert Sarnoff, who backed a revival of her career with promotional muscle. Moffo took voice lessons in an attempt to rebuild her technique, and while her career didn't regain its former luster, she continued to make high-profile appearances and recordings throughout the 1970s. Her Met career ended as it had begun, singing the role of Violetta, on March 15, 1976. Moffo remained active in the opera world after her retirement from performing. She served on the boards of several musical organizations and developed into a charismatic public speaker. Moffo suffered from cancer in later years but remained active until her death following a stroke in New York on March 9 (some sources say March 10), 2006.
Moffo's list of awards during her lifetime was a long one, including a Grammy nomination for an album of Verdi arias in 1962 and another for a recording of songs by Claude Debussy ten years later. Her admirers were passionate. Race-car driver Mario Andretti was said to be a fan, and she was the subject of a booklength poem, "Ode to Anna Moffo," by writer Wayne Koestenbaum. Perhaps the best sign of her lasting influence was the reissue of about a dozen of her LP recordings, most of them made for the RCA label, on compact disc. Video reissues of several films of her operatic performances allow modern audiences to experience Moffo in her vocal prime.
For the Record …
Born on June 27, 1932, in Wayne, PA; married Mario Lanfranchi (an Italian opera producer), 1957 (divorced, 1972); married Robert Sarnoff (an entertainment executive), 1974; died on March 9 (some sources say March 10), 2006, in New York City. Education: Studied voice at Curtis Institute, Philadelphia, and Accademia di Santa Cecilia, Rome, Italy.
Made debut at Festival of Two Worlds, Spoleto, Italy, 1955; made debut at Metropolitan Opera, New York, 1959; appeared at Metropolitan Opera more than 200 times, 1959–74; appeared in film Austerlitz, 1960; numerous appearances in European opera houses, 1960s; took hiatus in career due to vocal problems, 1974–76; resumed performing, late 1970s; active as public speaker and advocate for opera, 1980s–1990s.
Awards: Commendatore of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Italy.
Mozart Arias, RCA, 1958.
Giuseppe Verdi: Luisa Miller, RCA, 1965; reissued, 1990.
Gaetano Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor, RCA, 1966.
Giacomo Puccini: Madama Butterfly, RCA; reissued, 1990.
Verdi: La traviata, RCA; reissued, 1997.
Arias, RCA; reissued, 1999.
Georges Bizet: Carmen, RCA; reissued, 2001.
Verdi: Rigoletto, RCA; reissued, 2005.
Ottorino Respighi: La flamma, Opera d'Oro; reissued, 2006.
International Dictionary of Opera, St. James, 1993.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), May 3, 2006.
Independent (London, England), March 17, 2006, p. 39.
Los Angeles Times, March 11, 2006, p. B15.
New York Times, March 11, 2006, p. B14.
Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), March 13, 2006, p. 24.
Times (London, England), March 16, 2006, p. 70.
Washington Post, March 12, 2006, p. C7.
"Anna Moffo," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (June 24, 2006).
"Anna Moffo, Soprano and Arts Advocate, Has Died," Opera News, http://www.metoperafamily.org (June 24, 2006).
Moffo, Anna, noted American soprano; b. Wayne, Pa., June 27, 1932. She was of Italian descent. She studied voice at the Curtis Inst. of Music in Philadelphia, and later went to Italy on a Fulbright fellowship and studied at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome. She made her debut as Norina in Spoleto in 1955, and, progressing rapidly in her career, was engaged at La Scala in Milan, at the Vienna State Opera, and in Paris. She made her U.S. debut as Mimi with the Chicago Lyric Opera in 1957; on Nov. 14, 1959, she made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in N.Y. as Violetta, obtaining a gratifying success; sang regularly at the Metropolitan and other major opera houses in the U.S. and Europe until she suffered a vocal breakdown in 1974; then resumed her career in 1976, but then abandoned it a few years later. In her prime, she became known for her fine portrayals of such roles as Pamina, the 4 heroines in Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Gilda, Massenet’s Manon, Mélisande, Juliet, Luisa Miller, and Gounod’s Marguerite.
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire